The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

The Erotics of Melancholia: Natalie Clifford Barney’s “The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife”

In Feminism, Gender Studies, LGBT, Literature, Poetry, Transvestite Souls on June 8, 2012 at 10:18 am

by Chase Dimock

In the author’s note for her 1930 novel The One Who is Legion: or A.D.’s Afterlife, Natalie Clifford Barney writes: “For years I have been haunted by the idea that I should orchestrate those inner voices which sometimes speak to us in unison, and so compose a novel, not so much with the people about us, as with those within ourselves, for have we not several selves and cannot a story arise from their conflicts and harmonies?” Culminating in one of her few works in her native English tongue, this American ex-patriate’s “haunting” of multiple selves serves as a model to conceptualize an identity and lifestyle that had as of then not been granted an adequate discourse to describe it. As an unapologetic lesbian writer, Natalie Clifford Barney and her Parisian salon from the turn of the century well into the 60’s defied the heteronormative conventions of her era. She dared to write explicit love poems to women so as to ward off the “nuisance” of male admirers, she promiscuously romanced the great lesbian writers of her time from Liane de Pougy to Djuna Barnes, she created an alternative academie des femmes against the male dominated academie francaise to promote female authors, and she hosted theatricals based on Sapphic rituals in her own home garden.

For Barney, these “multiple selves” stand in for an identity that blurs the lines between masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual and penetrates to the depths of the human psyche and soul where desire is multi-form and multi-directional. As a literary project, The One Who is Legion embodies Barney’s vision of the erotic possibilities of a psyche and society unmoored from the constraints of binary categories and stable, self-same identities. In the aforementioned author’s note, Barney outlines the basic plot of the symbolist novel: “A.D., a being having committed suicide, is replaced by a sponsor, who carries on the broken life, with all the human feelings assumed with the flesh, until, having endured to the end in A.D.’s stead, the composite or legion is disbanded by the One, who remains supreme”. Barney’s summary of her novel is as confusing as the novel itself. The novel not only evades a sense of a stable plot or characterization, but it purposefully leaves the genders, sexualities, and even the number of individuals inhabiting singular bodies ambiguous. The “One”, the name Barney gives the spirit that resurrects and relives AD’s life on earth is in fact a legion of selves inhabiting a single body that refer to the body as “we”. The novel reads more like an extended prose poem, choosing to explore detours of philosophical musings and poetic contemplations rather than telling a linear or consistent narrative.

Natalie Clifford Barney with Renée Vivien

Yet, the novel is somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal. The suicided poet A.D. bears resemblance to one of Barney’s greatest loves, the poet Renee Vivien, whose self-destructive behavior, anorexia and drug and alcohol abuse caused her early death in 1909. Informed by this tragedy, Barney’snovel reads as a meditation on grieving the loss of a lover whose voice and presence remained fixed in her psyche 20 years later. Thus, I argue that Barney’s experience of grief is not aimed at successfully getting over loss, but instead she willfully submerges herself in the state of loss itself and perpetuates the existence and memory of her lover through exploring the dynamics of melancholia. Barney’s novel re-imagines melancholia as an erotic experience through which death does not diminish the memory of the lost love, but in fact amplifies the impact of its presence as it echoes in her unconscious and comes to inform and guide her desires.

In his 1977 book Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Giorgio Agamben re-evaluates Freud’s theory of melancholia with a consideration of the philosophy and mysticism of the middle ages. According to his essay “mourning and melancholia”, Freud asserts that melancholia as a depressive psychological state is derived from the inability to properly grieve a loss. Melancholia borrows its essential elements from mourning, but instead of coming to terms with the loss of an object and eventually turning that libidinal energy toward a new object, the loss becomes internalized and directed at the ego. Wallowing in a narcissistic regression, the subject becomes mired in a state of self-reproach and the ego itself becomes the diminished by the loss. While Agamben does not challenge Freud’s psychological model of melancholia, he is instead interested in exploring Freud’s constant referral back to the state of “ambivalence”. Here, the melancholic experiences a confused state in which he or she cannot stabilize the difference between the lost object as an external entity versus its mental projection as an imaginary, symbolic function that has now been integrated into the ego of the melancholic as a part of the self.

Albrecht Dürer’s “Melancholia” (1514)

Agamben suggests that this state of ambivalence was first theorized in the middle ages in which melancholia was conceived of as “black bile” or the noon-day demon of sloth which infected people and caused them to avert their eyes from the mysteries of spirituality, and the deferral of pleasure in the afterlife and instead turn their mournful gaze inwardly focused on the present, the ephemeral and the mortal. Agamben argues that the legacy of conceiving of melancholia as a phantasm that possesses the psyche is apparent in the psychoanalytic method when Freud theorizes that early in a child’s mental life he “hallucinates a satisfying object when he felt the need for it”. The creation of the imaginary or the hallucinatory in order to make sense of the world remains embedded in the unconscious and continues to inform and direct our mature desires and perceptions, often failing to meet this imaginary standard and producing disappointment and melancholia. Thus, melancholia is a by-product of a desire for an object that is unattainable, conceived of by the middle ages as an erotic pursuit compelling the visions of poets and mystics and translated by Freud in psychoanalytic terms as directed by libidinal drives inherent in all individuals.

Suturing together these two models of melancholia, Agamben writes:

 “Covering its object with the funeral trappings of mourning, melancholy confers upon it the phantasmagorical reality of what is lost; but insofar as such mourning is for an unattainable object, the strategy of melancholy opens a space for the existence of the unreal and marks out a scene in which the ego may enter into relation with it and attempt an appropriation such as no other possession could rival and no loss could possibly threaten”.

For Natalie Clifford Barney, the space for the existence of the unreal is the space of literature and poetry. As a story of rebirth, resurrection, and the infinite capacity of desire, The One who is Legion serves as a literary allegory for the unconscious and conscious interweaving of melancholia as a symptom of loss. Barney sets the opening scene of the resurrection of AD through a genderless, foreign body laying in a graveyard near the Bois de Boulogne where “graveyards are places of infection, the diseases of their brains, their last thoughts, their desires, their failures lurk in the air like poisoned wine to intoxicate the new-comer with the besetting characteristics of the deceased”. This doubled, shadow spirit, the “one” who is legion” resurrects AD not by reanimating her own person, but by becoming infected by her desires and is then charged with the duty to understand the life of the now deceased poet by reliving her life through these desires. The balance of the novel details the “one” returning to AD’s house and reading her poetry and writings and communing with her lovers, both male and female, in order to access, understand, and repeat the desire and despair that had driven her to suicide.

Agamben argues that melancholia is related to the eroticization of death, writing, “melancholy appears essentially as an erotic process engaged in an ambiguous commerce with phantasms and the double polarity, demonic-magic and angelic contemplative, of the nature of the phantasm is responsible not only for the melancholic’s morbid propensity for necromantic fascination but also for their aptitude for ecstatic illumination.” These states of “necromantic fascination” and “ecstatic illumination” as not mutually exclusive but mutually informing states of mind made possible through melancholia perfectly describes the erotic space made possible through the resurrection of A.D.’s desire mingled with “The One”. The erotic state described here extends beyond mere sexual desire; it encompasses the desire for the impossible, which the unconscious, the source of all desire, does not know is impossible, because as Freud so famously put it, there is no negation in the unconscious.

Barney and Vivien

Barney reimagines death as a time of a second life in which all of the impossible desires of the earthly, material life become possible, a place where the dual constraints of the physical laws of science and the social constructions of identity gender, sexuality, etc are trumped by the lived inner psychological and spiritual experience whose phantasms and hallucinations become liberated and experienced outwardly as reality. In one of “The One’s” musings, Barney writes, “because of this set of realities, we should never perhaps find our Reality…this fixed reality destroying the chance of the Real” (92). In death, the body, the material, the social, are all shed and decomposed and what remains is the core of the subject: pure desire, the reality hidden behind social constructions of the real. This desire for the impossible grants the co-presence of individuals, spirits, and desires of others fully integrated into a single body as a physical reality that mirrors the psychological experience of desire.

Barney’s narrative invents a type of erotic biography for A.D. in which her life is recounted not as a series of events or beliefs, but by the pure compulsion of desire that had forged erotic affective relations with people, literature, and objects. The unconscious logic of desire propels the narrative of the story. Conventions of time, space, sequence, and identity become rearranged according to the infinite forms in which the impossible desires of the unconscious associates them with conscious life. In the form of “The One”, this desire means “An effort beyond self to join with yet uncaptured forces. No longer separate but mingled with a variety of being, surpassing self for the greater gain; to be all. The ebb of life within to be charged with life from without”. For Barney, death and spiritual resurrection through the co-mingling of desire brings a sense of completion and wholeness that was impossible living as individual, discreet beings.

While living in AD’s house and reading her writings for clues as to the cause of her suicide, it becomes clear that AD’s despondency came from understanding that this ultimate bonding of souls upon death is impossible in the living flesh. In one poem, AD wrote, “Angels are hermaphrodites, self-sufficient. No marrying in heaven. On earth they often appear as a woman’s body with a man’s desire or vice versa” (38). AD’s concept of the hermaphroditic angel repeats almost identically the prevailing scientific model of the homosexual in the early half of the 20th century as an invert, a man in a woman’s body or a woman in a man’s body. Thus, AD conceives of the homosexual body as an indeterminate subject of the verge of completion. They contain counterbalancing masculinity and femininity, but lack the place in social discourse to be understood as a subject. The queer being thus shares the psychological constitution of the melancholic as he or she too contains an ego populated with presumably different voices. On earth, the invert is a divided subject, but upon death, they become a completed subject, both masculine and feminine, multi-vocal yet united like “The One”. Hermpahrodistism becomes no longer a model of internal conflict, but harmony and completion.

The hermaphrodite comes to symbolize the erotic fantasy of achieving wholeness through sexual relations; a loss of self in the other to become whole. “The One” comes to understand the effect of AD’s unachievable desire for this state when “the one” meets and makes love with one of AD’s lovers known only as “The Glow Woman”. Barney narrates the event “Bedded on the wall, our shadow in close mingling with her shadow cut an audacious figure—a pornographic imitation of love making. Were we they? Were they we? Where joined? Where separate?”. In this scene, Barney places a distinction between the purely sexual that consists in the pornographic form of coitus, versus the erotic that entails a spiritual and psychic intertwining with the other and loss of individual self; an act that evades a determinate form or shape. Yet, despite this erotic moment of spiritual convergence with The Glow Woman, “The One” feels the depressive state of separation and loss at the end. The “one” narrates: “Uncoupled, left alone in our throb, the legion in our blood still claimed her! The love-rapture, with its fall into and rise from the physical, its humiliating sequence, seemed an inadequate substitute for some supreme communion confiscated and sought through the limited vibrations of flesh” When the Glow woman leaves, “the one” reflects “now, she roused herself to sleep, wide-awake and separate, uncommunicative, unpossessed, unattainable, in selfish exhaustion that left us no part”. Here, “The One” understands AD’s earthly melancholia in which the erotic feeling of deep emotional and spiritual convergence is mocked by the unceremonious end when the object of desire parts unattainable, separated, and thus melancholia sets in.

To summarize her re-working of concept of melancholia, Barney’s resurrection of A.D. through her desires mirrors the psychical symptoms of the melancholic in that just as “the one” is infected with the desires and proclivities of a lost “other” in the form of AD, so too is the melancholic affected by an incorporation of the desires of the individual they have lost. Yet, for Barney, this death of the external object does not negate its presence, but in fact enhances its life in so far as it remains alive in the form of which it was incorporated into one’s psyche as a mental image comprised from one’s perspective of the object of desire. Though symbolized as a phantasm that infects us upon death, in reality, the lost object has always existed as a doubled-entity: living as both as an external, material object and the imagined mental projection of the object subjective its function as an object of desire. Thus, upon the death or loss of the object, the object does not at that moment come to infect the psyche, but instead melancholia is marked by a sudden realization and disavowal of the fact that the only true relation one has with another being is one that is imagined; a relationship the individual creates out of an identity and function that they construct of the object. The external object is lost, but a feeling of its presence remains, which makes the subject realize the only presence the object ever had was the impression the subject made of it informed by the desire it ignited.

In a way, Barney’s spiritual allegory grants the melancholic the lost object for which it so desperately pines: not the external presence or body of the object of desire, but the ability to feel and understand the object’s own desire and to merge it inextricably with the desire of one’s own. Barney’s reconfiguration of melancholia as an erotic pursuit borrows Freud’s psychical structure of the incorporation of projections of others into one’s psyche, but departs from the self-enclosed narcissism  of melancholia by reinvisioning these mental projections of the object of desire not as subjective, self-serving constructions, but a real spiritual communion with the object where their desire is felt and understood as it truly is.

About the Author:

Chase Dimock is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois. He specializes in 20th century American, French, and German literature with an emphasis in Queer Theory, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Marxism. As a Graduate Assistant, he has taught courses on western literature spanning the ancients to the existentialists as well as courses on gender studies, erotic literature, and representations of the Holocaust. He is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “The American Sexual Diaspora in France: Queer Itinerancies and the Birth of the Gay Modernist Subject.” His research is devoted to exploring interwar queer sexualities in the works of lost and forgotten American expatriate authors and how the established French canon of gay authors and French gay culture influenced the construction of an American queer subject. Chase Dimock is also a regular contributor to the arts and politics magazine As It Ought To Be and he writes reviews of queer theory publications for Lambda Literary.

  1. A fascinating analysis. As a newcomer to this blog, I’m very happy to learn about your dissertation project: I hope one day to see it in publication.

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